The release of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky comes a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, spurred by a whistleblower’s anonymous complaint about the Ukraine phone call and possibly other matters, announced her long-delayed support for an impeachment inquiry.
Below is our line-by-line analysis of the released memorandum, which shows a freewheeling Trump by turns buttering up his interlocutor, passing along unverified and dubious allegations about Biden and Democrats, and cajoling the Ukrainian leader into doing him a “favor.”
Here Trump starts out his call with Zelensky by emphasizing how much the U.S. spends on Ukraine and implying the country is dependent on that aid because Europe isn’t doing its fair share. (The EU has actually provided more than $16.5 billion to Ukraine since 2014.) By saying the U.S. has been “very, very good” to Ukraine, Trump seems to be setting up a power dynamic and establishing leverage that he uses later in the call to ask Zelensky for a “favor.”
Tanks and Thanks
Zelensky here references the U.S.’ provision of American-made anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine last year. Ukraine had lobbied hard to Western officials for more weapons and non-lethal aid to combat Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the weapons were finally delivered in April 2018. Zelensky says Ukraine is ready to buy more Javelins, and was not aware at this point that Trump had ordered $250 million worth of military assistance aid to be withheld from Ukraine just days before this call.
The Big Ask
Immediately after Zelensky mentions U.S. defense aid, Trump directly asks Zelensky for a “favor,” indicating such aid may be dependent upon Zelensky’s compliance. He launches into a request that Ukraine investigate the cybersecurity firm—CrowdStrike—that determined the Democratic National Committee had been hacked by Russia. This is a recurring obsession for Trump—the fact that the DNC did not provide its server to the FBI to examine independently. Trump told the Associated Press in 2017 that he thought CrowdStrike was “Ukraine-based” and “owned by a very rich Ukrainian.” The firm was actually founded by a Russian-American, Dmitri Alperovitch, and is based in Sunnyvale, California.
Bringing in Barr
This is a new revelation—it hadn’t been previously reported that Trump tried to get Attorney General William Barr involved, which would indicate that the president tried to put the weight of the Justice Department behind an investigation of his biggest political rival. It wouldn’t be the first time—Trump has mused openly about getting the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton, Jim Comey, and various other foes. But it raises more questions about why the Justice Department advised the director of national intelligence to withhold from Congress a whistleblower complaint that reportedly centers around a call in which Barr is explicitly named.
Zelensky acknowledges what has been previously reported—that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani met with a Zelensky aide recently. Giuliani has said the State Department was involved in setting up that backchannel. Zelensky stops short of promising a Biden investigation, but clearly wants to stay on Trump’s good side because the U.S. is one of its most important allies in the fight against Russian aggression, so he does not brush it off altogether.
‘Some Very Bad People’
Trump here is referring to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was not considered “a very good prosecutor” by Ukraine’s own parliament, which voted to remove him. Indeed, Shokin was widely condemned as soft on corruption and fired in 2016 amid international pressure to remove him. Trump and Giuliani, however, have claimed that Biden alone urged Ukraine to fire Shokin because he was investigating the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose board members included Biden’s son Hunter. According to documents obtained by Bloomberg earlier this year, there was no active investigation of Burisma when Shokin was fired—it had been dormant for more than a year by that point. Subsequent prosecutor generals have insisted they’ve found no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden or his son.
Here Come the Bidens
This appears to be the first indication we’ve gotten that the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was in Trump’s crosshairs. Yovanovich, who was appointed by President Obama, was suddenly recalled from her post earlier this year—two months earlier than planned—with no explanation. She is a career diplomat who has been at the forefront of Ukraine’s war on corruption and fight against Russian aggression. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York contended in a letter at the time that her removal stemmed from her anti-corruption work.
This is also the first instance in the memo where Trump refers to the Bidens by name, and again repeats the false claim that “Biden stopped the prosecution” of his son Hunter. He repeats his request that Zelensky work with Attorney General Barr.
It’s not clear why Zelensky seems to dislike Yovanovich, but it could have to do with her falling out earlier this year with Ukraine’s special anti-corruption prosecutor at the time. She called for him to be fired weeks before Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election, fueling accusations that she had inserted herself into Ukraine’s political process. Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko—a Giuliani associate whose dismissal was requested by Zelensky as one of his first acts after being sworn in—claimed that Yovanovich had given him a list of people “not to prosecute.” That claim prompted a rebuke from the State Department. “The allegations by the Ukrainian prosecutor-general are not true and are intended to tarnish the reputation of Ambassador Yovanovitch,” it said in a statement at the time.
The Flattering Signoff
Trump reassures Zelensky that Ukraine’s economy “is going to get better and better,” just after urging him to investigate Biden and the Democrats with the help of the Justice Department. While Trump did not directly reference aid during the call—which he ordered to be withheld just days before the conversation—he again mentions money within the context of his asking Zelensky for a “favor.” Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen testified earlier this year that making direct requests is not Trump’s style.
“He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code,” Cohen said. “And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”